Knowledge is perhaps the most important driver for performance of any kind. It is therefore important to understand the nature of knowledge.
Historically, since Descartes, knowledge has been viewed as something objective and indisputable. The earth is round! We all know, however, the that earth is not round – it is slightly elliptical with the polar areas ‘flatter’ than a round earth would suggest. But come to think of it – there are many mountains and deep valleys in the sea that makes the shape also not really elliptical either…
The point I am trying to make in this little example is that our vantage point has a tremendous impact on how we view reality and therefore what is true. For example, Benoit Mandelbrot devised an entirely new theory called Fractal Geometry from the simple question ‘how long is the coast of Britain?’ It turns out that depending on how diligent we are in measuring the length of every bay we get different answers – all of them are true given their assumptions. This explains why the Spanish say their border to Portugal is 987 km while the Portuguese say that the same border – which must be the same length in reality – is in fact 1214 km! The same discrepancies occur between many countries. When knowledge apparently is such a difficult topic even about such mundane things are measuring border distances, how much more difficult is it not to be ‘objective’ about complex systems such as organizations, human behavior and the like?
This and more is discussed extensively in my forthcoming book, but the point is that the knowledge we surround ourselves with in organizations, science and society at large is nothing but ‘organized ignorance’, that is, a systematic account of our various viewpoints that ultimately cannot be proven. In other words, objectivity does not exist – knowledge is socially and culturally accepted beliefs. It is an inter-subjective agreement of what is true, what exists and so on.
Knowledgeable people are therefore humble, and so should managers and
leaders be as well, so that they do not fall prey to their own arrogance and inflated egos of past performance. With all the corporate scandals since the 1980s it should be obvious that so called experienced people can make mistakes that even a college undergraduate would have avoided.
The reasons for this is that all the experience a human can gather in a life time amounts to nothing compared to the enormous complexity of organizations and society. Being humble and consider all facts is therefore of paramount importance – what worked earlier, may have worked for entirely different reasons than you have been thinking.
Therefore, an unskilled manager can produce better results than a skilled one in many circumstances – it is partly a matter of luck and partly a matter of being prepared. Luck lies on the outside of ourselves, while being prepared lies within. Realizing this and acting accordingly is to be an skillful manager.